Kai Simons, Director Emeritus and co-founder of the Max-Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, talks about handling controversies, changes in science, and career transitions.
You are one of the people who helped to make The EMBO Meetings possible. What is your favourite thing about them?
The idea behind The EMBO Meeting was to have one big meeting that catches all the excitement in the molecular life sciences, and to provide a broad exposure to areas which you aren’t usually exposed to. There are many places in Europe where the PhD or seminar programme do not provide this exposure, and it is very important. I think most of the discoveries in research come from combining things which haven’t been combined before. For that, you have to have an associative mind that has to be fed constantly. So I really look forward to this broader exposure.
It also provides the opportunity for recruiting – people should change their area of research when they move from a Ph.D. to a postdoc, to get a broader idea of the field. Also, young PIs have to attract people to their labs, and they have the posters for this. People in the U.S. use this very frequently, but many people in Europe don’t understand the need to recruit for their labs.
You faced a lot of controversy when presenting your discoveries about lipid rafts to the field. What got you through it, and what would you advise for scientists in similar positions?
Yes, some people still think lipid rafts don’t exist. The thing is that every new idea, whenever you move off the beaten track, can face problems. You would think people would like new ideas, but it’s very difficult to predict when they will and when they won’t. In this case, they were very vicious. We were even told by one reviewer that if our manuscript was published, it would set the field back by at least a few thousand person-years. To be honest, I felt proud that he even thought I was in the position to mislead people to that extent (laughs).
So how do you survive? My best advice would be to avoid fighting with people – these emotional debates can not only earn you enemies everywhere, but also really destroy a field and cause people to leave it. Disputes are fine until they become emotional. In that case, stay low, and be continuously on the lookout for new methodologies that allow you to go beyond the issues where the controversy lies.
How has science changed during your career?
Everything gets bigger. Everything. For me, the biggest issue in my lifetime if I look back is the numbers game. More scientists, more papers, more genes, more proteins, more lipids, more institutes, more PhDs. In some cases we’re approaching our limits and there are issues to deal with.
What sort of issues? How do we confront them?
Well, it should not be that the career ladder is so abrupt, that you train PhDs and postdocs to become PIs, and then you exclude almost everyone – that just doesn’t work. We pretend that everyone who gets a Ph.D. should become a scientist, but that’s of course completely stupid, because that’s not how it is. Bruce Alberts had a very good idea: the PhD should be two-stream, with a harsher stream where you demand more research-wise, and another stream where you provide more soft skills, to prepare the students for a life outside of research. I think it’s a good idea, and we should experiment more with Ph.D. programmes. We should be supporting and promoting the trend towards scientific careers outside of research.
You’ve mentored many young scientists. What advice would you have for young scientists facing major career transitions and who wish to make an impact in these other areas like you have?
My best advice for them would be to treat their career transitions as proactive decisions, and to think very hard about each step, rather than blindly going from postdoc to postdoc. Proactivity means you talk to a lot of people around you and seek their advice. Think hard about what you really want, and where it will lead you. You are the one who has to prepare yourself for your career and make it happen.
by Raeka Aiyar